What Mike Murley and Hannah Barstow learned from each other

Since Mike Murley came to Toronto in 1981 from his home in Nova Scotia, he’s been part of many, many jazz milestones over the last 40 years.

He was part of Juno-winning albums with guitarist Ed Bickert, he was a key member of Rob McConnell’s tentet, he’s worked on collaborations with David Braid, and he’s won multiple Junos with the contemporary group Metalwood. He’s also made a number of solo recordings and worked with dozens of international artists.

Murley has just released a new album with pianist, vocalist and composer Hannah Barstow called In a Summer Dream. 

He joined us to talk more about the record.

Tell me about your partnership with Hannah Barstow. How did you connect musically? What made you want to pursue making an album with her?

She’s young, but she’s an old soul. She’s a real jazz musician. She loves the music. She loves playing standards, but she’s also a great songwriter and arranger. She’s a former student, so I’m very proud of her, as well. I was listening to her last night, and when you’re playing with musicians of that age, you can hear them getting better weekly or nightly. I love playing with her. We have very similar musical tastes. I know I’ve influenced her a bit, but she also brings in new things to me. The first tune on the record, Don’t Look Back, is a standard by Johnny Mandel, and I’d never heard that before. It’s an amazing tune. So, I’m learning from her, too, for sure.

When you talk about watching someone come into their own like that, do you think it’s the tools you’ve had as an educator that put your antenna up on how people are developing? Do you have an acute awareness of that?

Maybe? But it’s not too hard to hear, really. Maybe somebody who just walked into the club, they haven’t got the perspective. I’ve been playing with her on and off for a few years now, so I’ve really heard a lot of growth. She was always good and talented, but she’s just getting stronger — there’s more depth in what she’s doing all the time.

You talk about her knowledge and love of standards. I’m wondering if over the evolution of your jazz world you’ve seen younger people start to leapfrog over the Great American Songbook, or has your experience been that they’re still taking it on?

Some of them are taking it on, but you’re right: For some of them, it’s not hip. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll see former students who hit 30 and they realize that’s what they’ve got to get to now. I think it’s an ongoing thing. Even for me — I’m 61 — I’m still trying to learn more about the tradition. It’s an ongoing thing in jazz: looking back and looking forward.

When you and Hannah sit down to talk about material for the album, give me a sense of how that process goes down.

We knew we had some favourite tunes that we shared. We both love Michel Legrand, so we picked a couple of his tunes. Like I said, she brought in the Mandel tune. We threw in a Kenny Wheeler tune, one of my favourite composers. We both wanted to write an original, so we put that in. It was really easy, actually. I’m very happy with the record. It’s definitely on the laid-back side. It’s very intimate. It’s just us and Jim Vivian on bass, who sounds incredible on it, too. People have given me a lot of positive feedback about it.

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Your very first solo album is The Curse from 1988. Jim Vivian plays on that recording. Here we are in 2022 and Jim Vivian plays on this album. There’s got to be something special about that relationship.

I met him the second year I was in Toronto and we started working together. He’s from Newfoundland, I’m from Nova Scotia… it’s not exactly the same culture, but we share a lot in common. He’s an incredible bassist. He’s really, really good at playing original music. [Steve Wallace, too.] I love them both for different reasons. I love playing songs with Steve, and I love playing original music with Jim. They can both do both, but it’s interesting.

This interview has been edited and condensed.